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the past

'I've never tried to pull the wool over people’s eyes about my history'

Martin McGuinness insists he would never compare himself to Nelson Mandela.

DURING THE 2011 presidential election Martin McGuinness became increasingly irked by questions about his IRA past. At one point he told reporters: “Most Irish journalists, if Nelson Mandela was sitting in front of them, would not go down this line of questioning.”

He was not comparing himself to Mandela, he added swiftly, but that hasn’t stopped McGuinness’s detractors from using the remark to criticise the divisive republican leader.

Many wondered how on earth could a man convicted of IRA membership, and considered a figurehead in an organisation responsible for many atrocities in the North, even come close to the anti-apartheid leader who is revered worldwide.

Screen Shot 2015-12-15 at 6.07.04 p.m. Martin McGuinness in the 1980s YouTube YouTube

McGuinness told this week that, for the record, he would never compare himself to the former South African president:

I’d never compare myself to Nelson Mandela, how could I? How could anybody?

The North’s Deputy First Minister does insist, however, that he has never shied away from his past:

Michelle Hennessy /

“I have never tried to pull the wool over people’s eyes about my history. I come from the Bogside. I come from a community that was discriminated against for far too long. Not just treated like second class citizens, but third class citizens in our own city and as a result of that there was a conflict. I was part of that conflict.

But I’ve also, for the last more than 20 years, been part of a very important peace process that is held up as a beacon of hope for many other conflicts throughout the world.

McGuinness does not regret his part in the conflict, but does regret that there was one in the first place, and that “an awful lot of people were hurt” because of it.

Screen Shot 2015-12-14 at 6.46.15 p.m. Martin McGuinness in's offices this week

All that said, he believes his work over the past 20 years, which he repeatedly refers back to in our wide-ranging interview, means that even unionists appreciate the work he has done as part of the peace process:

People in the unionist community regularly come up to me and utter the phrase, which is a common phrase that I get everywhere, including on the streets of London, ‘you’re doing a great job, keep up the good work’.

He recently faced a series of probing and uncomfortable questions from journalist Eamonn Mallie about his involvement in violence during the Troubles.

“How did you feel when you pulled the trigger to kill a soldier or police officer?” Mallie asked.

It was a question McGuinness was reluctant to answer for fear of providing sensationalist headlines. He insists however that such questions don’t bother him.

But will he ever talk about ‘pulling the trigger’? We asked:

Michelle Hennessy /

It’s been an extraordinary few years for McGuinness who, in addition to his day-to-day job in the Northern Executive, has run for the presidency in the south and met the Queen on a number of occasions.

It’s something he could never have imagined, particularly now that he enjoys such a convivial relationship with Her Majesty.

“I could never have imagined that in my younger days or even in my 40s or 50s,” he said. “But all of us are on a journey, not just on this island but on the other island.”

I think whenever an opportunity presents itself to show the unionist community, the loyalist community in the north, what a united Ireland would look like, I was certainly going to seize that opportunity to show respect to them by meeting someone who they give their allegiance to.

Royal visit to Northern Ireland - Day 2 Paul Faith Paul Faith

He said the Queen made a “big impression” on her State visit to Ireland in 2011, a visit that Sinn Féin famously snubbed, with McGuinness declining to attend the State dinner at Dublin Castle.

He said it was the right decision at the time for the “cohesion of the party”. What changed was what the Queen told attendees at Dublin Castle in May 2011 when she said that with “the benefit of historical hindsight we can all see things which we would wish had been done differently or not at all”.

McGuinness believes those words changed things and he was prepared to argue, within Sinn Féin, that he, and others, should meet with the Royals:

I think it was quite clear from looking at how the British handled that that this was a person who understood that there was a very bad history, and that big acts of reconciliation were required, and which she engaged in big acts of reconciliation.

“I argued very strongly within the party that the time would come when we would have to reciprocate and I think we have done that.”

There’s more from our interview with Martin McGuinness on this weekend.

WATCH: Martin McGuinness told us why he can get on with just about anybody

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